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An Education Tsunami

July 17, 2012

Will on-line courses destroy universities?

Daphne Koller is a famous researcher who is on the faculty at Stanford University. She started her career as a theorist; I especially remember the paper “Constructing small sample spaces satisfying given constraints” with Nimrod Megiddo at STOC 1993. She now has shifted her focus to learning—not learning theory as in boolean functions, but real learning. People learning. A recent paper of hers is “Modeling how students learn to program” and is at SIGCSE 2012; it is joint with Chris Piech, Mehran Sahami, Steve Cooper, and Paulo Blikstein.

Today I want to talk about the potential coming revolution in delivery of knowledge.

Daphne is playing a key role in this. Stanford is one of the centers of the innovative use of on-line social systems for teaching. Instead of only writing papers about learning, an honorable and well respected model, she has decided to actually change education. Essentially she is following following Alan Kay’s brilliant dictum:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Her vehicle for this change is a company called Coursera, which she founded. It is a spin-out from Stanford University, and is officially linked to various other universities already.

Truth in blogging: we just heard the official announcement that Georgia Tech will be part of Coursera:

Today Georgia Tech will announce a partnership with Coursera, the Stanford University online education spinout that has been much in the news lately. We will join a small group of highly respected partner universities, including Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and Caltech in a bold experiment in the future of higher education. With all the talk about the nature and desirability of change in higher education, I think it is significant that some of the world’s best universities have decided to partner in this way. It also is significant that Georgia Tech is a founding member of this group.

While my institution has made an agreement, I have no idea exactly what it means yet. I thought it was important however to disclose our connection. Update Tue. 5:35pm: we have learned that the New York Times covered this story today.

The former Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun also has related ideas, and his vehicle is called Udacity, with founding partners David Stevans and Mike Sokolsky. There are others working toward the same, or almost the same, goal: MIT and Harvard have formed edX, a not-for-profit initiative. Well all these efforts all are not-for-profit so far, but edX is planned to stay that way, while Coursera and Udacity hope to eventually {\dots} We will see.

The Coursera Approach

Here is a nice quotation from Andrew Ng, also of Stanford University and Coursera.

Last year, Stanford University offered three online courses, which anyone in the world could enroll in and take for free. Students were expected to submit homeworks, meet deadlines, and were awarded a “Statement of Accomplishment” only if they met our high grading bar. Offered this way, my machine learning class had over 100,000 enrolled students. To put this number in context, in order to reach an audience of this size, I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class (enrollment of {\approx} 400) for 250 years.

That is pretty impressive, and is the key driving force behind the revolution. The ability for one person to reach these kinds of numbers seems to be a game-changer.

Ng goes on to make the key point that technology has changed almost all aspects of our economy, but education has basically stayed unchanged. He goes on to say:

I think there is a huge opportunity to use modern internet and AI technology to inexpensively offer a high quality education online. Through such technology, we envision millions of people gaining access to the world-leading education that has so far been available only to a tiny few, and using this education to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Here is a table that summarizes some of the on-line courses that have happened already or are planned for the future.

Why Online Now?

Why the sudden increase in interest in possible online courses? Said differently: why are there multiple new well funded companies and non-profit efforts happening now? We have had video courses for years, so what is the new twist? One way to understand what is happening is to look at several issues that all courses face, offline or online.

{\bullet } How to answer questions from students? If an online class has 100,000 students clearly there are not enough hours in the day for the professor to answer questions. Nor can anyone afford to hire a huge team of teaching assistants to do this. Gone are office hours. So how will this be handled? The key is through social media. All the approaches plan on using discussion system technology to have students help each other with questions. This is similar to the stackoverflow ideas that are used to answer questions in research. The companies claim that the methods work well, but this is certainly one of the new ideas. Thus, online courses are more than “just” videos.

{\bullet } How to grade exams? Again the huge volume of exams will force the use of automation. Clearly multiple choice exams are pretty straightforward, but are they sufficient? I suspect that AI technology will be used more and more to allow non-multiple choice exams. One must be careful with this, but I believe that it should be possible. Currently essays are auto-graded for the SAT, but there are issues with this.

{\bullet } How to avoid cheating? I have talked to the founders of the two companies and they both are well aware of this issue. The best solution I have heard so far is two-fold. One, do not worry about it, since the students are not yet getting full university credit. The other is to have students take the final exam in a special location, with human examiners. This is already done with other mass exams so it seems a reasonable approach.

{\bullet } How to replace the social aspects of teaching? Students seem to get more out of classes than just the lectures and so on. They meet other students, they interact with other people, there is a social educational aspect to standard classes. How will online courses handle this? It is unclear, and I think it is one of the major open questions.

The Muti-Billion Dollar Question

The question is: are these on-line based courses going to replace traditional courses? Will students not need to sit in classrooms in the future, but rather need only a laptop to get a first-rate education? These questions are called the “Tsunami” by the President of Stanford, John Hennessy, himself a former Stanford computer science professor and one of the founders of MIPS Technologies.

Are we as educators going to disappear? Why take my course on combinatorics if you can have Bob Sedgewick, one of the world experts, give the lectures? Indeed.

Here is a cartoon that I made that attempts to present the dilemma facing us at universities. I hope all take it as it is meant—as a light way to raise the key issue. Will universities as we know them today survive? Will some disappear, will some thrive; will all have to change and adapt?

Things Do Disappear

Things do disappear. Gone are buggy whip companies, slide rule companies, and Kodak cameras. Ken remembers how neat it was that Oxford had a Woolworth’s thrift store, since the chain was a mainstay of his childhood in Paramus, NJ, and undergraduate years at Princeton. Yet a wistful verse by W.H. Auden mourning two pubs that used to be on its site ran through his head every time he entered it:

The Clarendon’s gone—I regret her;

The George is now closed and forgot.

Some changes are all for the better—

But Woolworth’s is probably not.

That Woolworth’s closed its doors at the end of 2008, amid the worldwide recession, and the remains of its UK parent group were absorbed by an online retailer. In the US, F.W. Woolworth stayed one of 30 bellwether companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average until 1991, when it was replaced by Wal-Mart, and it lasted as a chain only six more years. Now one part of it survives as a popular brand you may have on your feet—can you name it?

Most recently gone is the wonderful bookstore chain that was called Borders. It was founded in 1971 by two brothers with that surname, in Ann Arbor where they were attending the University of Michigan. At its peak it employed over 19,000 people throughout the U.S., and more internationally. Counting Waldenbooks stores too, there were over 500 such stores. It is gone now. The last store closed its doors on Sunday, September 18, 2011—see this for details.

There may be many factors that caused it to cease to exist, but certainly the rise of Amazon and e-book readers were major ones. Borders could not, or chose not to, adapt—and it paid the price. It disappeared. I wonder can the same happen to universities? We did raise this question two-and-a-half years ago, in Latin.

Open Problems

Have you used online courses? Will you use them in the future? Are universities in trouble? What do you think?

[added NY Times update]

41 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2012 7:22 am

    Don’t forget to mention Umesh Varzirani’s current course on Quantum Computing:

  2. July 17, 2012 8:39 am

    I have taken Daphne Koeller’s Probabilistic Graphical Models course on Coursera. Note that the number of students that completed this course was 948 for the advanced track and 371 for the basic track (without programming assignments). This was from an initial enrolment of over 35,000 (I am taking these numbers from emails sent by Coursera). For these free online courses it is much better to quote completion numbers than enrolment numbers because, as you can see, they have huge drop-out rates. It is still larger than any offline class in a university, but not by the orders of magnitude that are sometimes claimed. Notably, neither Udacity or Coursera are keen on advertising their completion rates. Their press releases always emphasize enrolment numbers, but these are not the figures we should be focussing on.

    I very much enjoyed the course and learned a lot from it. Still, as an academic who needed to learn this material for my work, I was a very self motivated student. My impression was that it was very heavy-going for more typical students. For most students, I think some personal contact with teaching staff would be very beneficial, and it is difficult to see how these courses can offer that on their own. Instead, I can see these courses being used at smaller institutions so that they can offer a wider variety of courses that have the cache of being associated with top-ranked universities, but still give the students personal attention in small groups.

  3. July 17, 2012 8:41 am

    I very much needed to use the word “very” very much less in that last paragraph.

  4. July 17, 2012 8:59 am

    For me it is a question of depth. These days I often refer to online information as a resource for quick learning, but generally only at a ‘higher’ level. What I’ve found is that much of my really deep, persistent knowledge comes from sitting in live lectures, and tends to be deeper if the lecturer is good. My guess is that it is that extra level of ‘experience’ (the room, the speaker, the fellow students, etc) that cements the information more deeply. Thus, I suspect that it is similar to most things “easy come, easy go”.

    I love the ability to look up reference information, but when I really want to ‘know’ it, I need more than just a stream of facts.

    My long-term prediction is that some aspects of the computer revolution will always ebb and flow. Thus, “online” is in fashion right now, but it will fall from grace for a while, then be back in fashion, then fall again, then …


  5. Craig permalink
    July 17, 2012 10:22 am

    I can’t think of a subject matter in mathematics that I can’t get good lecture notes for free online.

  6. July 17, 2012 10:34 am

    I have registered in a LOT of these online courses mostly to test how well they work, and while I think they can be a good supplement to a university course or a good option for someone who does not have the time to enroll at a traditional university I do not see them replacing universities any time soon.

    As Matt Leifer’s stats show simply putting a course does not magically provide motivation, time or academic preparation to successfully master the materials.

    In many ways these online classes are like a really good textbook with lots of exercises and answers at the back: extremely useful and helpful, but we all know the printing press has been around forever and it didn’t lead to the end of universities.

    But I am hoping to incorporate these online into the regular classes that I teach and maybe my students can get the best of both worlds.

  7. John Sidles permalink
    July 17, 2012 10:59 am

    The game “transform education” can be played by individuals too; see for example the Khan Academy, or David Metzler’s 41-part YouTube series Intro to Differential Forms. These continue the honorable tradition of Michael Spivak’s non-academic yet magisterial mathematical books, beginning with Spivak’s best-selling Calculus on Manifolds: a Modern Approach to Classical Theorems of Advanced Calculus (1965). From an Amazon review:

    “When you are in college, the standard calculus courses will teach you the material useful to engineers. If you want to become a mathematician (pure or applied), you must pretty much forget the material in these courses and start over. That’s where you need Spivak’s Calculus on Manifolds. Spivak knows you learned calculus the wrong way and devotes the first three chapters in setting things right.”

    Perhaps the truly radical aspect of social-media-based education is not that it is on-line, but rather a Spivak-style global realization that “we have been teaching students the wrong way, and now we are setting things right.”

    There is ample precedent for this. E.g., in Burgelman and Grove’s Strategy Is Destiny: How Strategy-Making Shapes a Company’s Future (2002) we read about the Intel Corporation grappling with the globalization and commodification of DRAM [computer memory], which was Intel’s core business at one time:

    Andy Grove  “One of the toughest challenges is to make people see that self-evident truths are no longer true. I recall going to see Gordon [Moore] and asking what a new management would do if we were replaced. The answer was clear: get out of DRAM. So, I suggested to Gordon that we go out through the revolving door, come back in, and do it ourselves.”

    Key questions include (obviously): “What specific elements constitute the value of academic certificates? How do these elemental values scale to be achievable for new generation of 10^9 young people? How do these elemental values sustain the planetary-scale enterprises that generate jobs?”

    Intel has survived, because it has been a company that consistently finds good answers to this tough class of questions. Other companies, that do not find good answers, do not survive.

    Are today’s universities any different? Probably not.

    • John Sidles permalink
      July 17, 2012 11:58 am

      The following tests WordPress’ LaTeX capabilities:

      \begin{array}{r|@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ \ \ }} \mathrm D& \star & & & & & & & }}}\\ \mathrm E& \star\\ \mathrm G& \star & & & & & & \smash{\text{\makebox[0pt][l]{\huge\ensuremath{\!\nearrow\,}}}}\\ \smash{\text{\Huge\makebox[0pt][r]{\ensuremath{\downarrow}\,}}}\,\mathrm R&&\star\\ \mathrm E&&\star\\ \mathrm E&&&\star&\star&\star\\ \mathrm S&&&&&&\star&\star&\star&\star\\ \hline &\mathrm R&\mathrm E&\mathrm S&\mathrm O&\mathrm U&\mathrm R & \mathrm S & \mathrm E & \mathrm S\\[1ex] \multicolumn{9}{c}{\text{\Huge\makebox[0pt][l]{\ensuremath{\leftarrow}}}} \end{array}

      Apologies is this doesn’t work!

    • John Sidles permalink
      July 17, 2012 12:16 pm

      Blast! Perhaps Terry Tao’s LaTeX/WordPress hints can help:

      \begin{array}{r|@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ }c@{\ \ \ }} \mathrm D& \star & & & & & & & }}\\ \mathrm E& \star\\ \mathrm G& \star & & & & & & \text{\huge\ensuremath{\!\!\smash\nearrow\!\!}}\\ \text{\Huge\ensuremath{\smash\downarrow}\,}\,\mathrm R&&\star\\ \mathrm E&&\star\\ \mathrm E&&&\star&\star&\star\\ \mathrm S&&&&&&\star&\star&\star&\star\\ \hline &\mathrm R&\mathrm E&\mathrm S&\mathrm O&\mathrm U&\mathrm R & \mathrm S & \mathrm E & \mathrm S\\ &\multicolumn{8}{c}{\text{\Huge\ensuremath{\leftarrow}}}\end{array}

      (if not, I’ll try again in a day or two).

      • July 17, 2012 4:40 pm

        Sorry—I’m doing XYZ before a vacation, and fear to tread into your big array. But I bet the @ specifiers are the trouble, since HTML does not have such fine control. If you make an IMG by screen cut-and-paste, PNG or JPG or whatnot, we can do that.

    • John Sidles permalink
      July 18, 2012 6:54 am

      Thanks, Ken! Here’s a version with an embedded PNG (thanks to the utility “LaTeXiT”).


      At universities all around the world, wherever department chairs gather, deans show the Academic Main Sequence graph, in which each department is assessed, each year, by the number of degrees awarded and by the revenue generated.

      (link to graphic; if feasible please embed it)

      It commonly happens that departmental performance is diverse: faculty in some departments expend a great deal of effort in teaching, which leaves less time for proposal-writing, while in other departments the culture is the opposite. In consequence, departmental performance spreads along a characteristically concave arc that (borrowing from the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram of astronomy) we will call the academic main sequence.

      The world’s academic deans invariably ask their faculty:

      Is there some radically convex strategy by which our great university can take strides toward the upper-right quadrant? Are there no faculty or departments who are sufficienctly innovative to depart from academia’s main sequence?

      The great adventure of modern academia is that some faculty, some departments, and some universities are departing from the main sequence. And yet significant risks are attendant to this departure. As astronomers know, the evolution of stars that depart from the Main Sequence tends to be unstable, short-lived, and even explosive.

      Here are some explosive off-sequence propositions that I hear from young academic stars who have departed the main sequence:

      • Modern academic certificates are worth less than the tuition charged.

      • Creative academic communities always are global, never are local.

      • Mathematics is either natural or irrelevant.

      • Biology and medicine are synthetic disciplines, not scientific.

      • Physical science has ended in Russia and is ending around the world.

      • Experiments are for robots, not people.

      • Lab space is a burden, not an asset.

      • Shun all codes and tools that are not open.

      • Universities no longer understand their own business.

      • Help growing enterprises to grow; all other career plans fail.

      • Your best allies are on-line.

      • Control your own narrative.

      Nowadays young academic stars deploy these propositions as a deliberately provocative assay: faculty who exhibit an informed and rational sympathy to these propositions are assessed as viably off-sequence; otherwise not.

      Conclusion:  Can the accelerating exodus of young stars from the academic main sequence be halted? The answer plainly is “no” … and this is good, because surely the end-result will be that the world’s academic heavens shine with a multitude of bright new stars, arrayed in beautiful new constellations.

      Uhhh … and no doubt a considerable number of implosion-explosion supernovas will be seen too. 🙂

      • John Sidles permalink
        July 19, 2012 11:34 am

        I forgot to mention too, another tactic that academic stars employ to depart the main sequence: (a) negotiate large-volume discounts from external manufacturers of experimental and/or observational data, then (b) use the money saved to hire student-simulationists to analyze/annotate the massive volumes of data purchased.

        Modern-day data manufacturing capabilities improve at a Moore’s Law doubling cadence, and therefore, to the extent that the above strategy fast/cheap/effective in 20XX, the same strategy is twice as fast/cheap/effective in 20XX+3. Given these realities, there is no going back: as the Borg Queen says: “Resistance is futile”.

        That is why I commended Burgelman and Grove’s Strategy Is Destiny in the post above … Moore’s Law has come to benchtop research … not at some indeterminate future time, but concretely and already.

  8. quantumfrontiers permalink
    July 17, 2012 11:22 am

    Universities and physical classrooms are here to stay for a long time. The concept of online learning has one of its most recent incarnations in the flipped-classroom model: Students watch the lecture online, before class, and then go to class to discuss what they learned and work on problem sets that solidify their newly acquired knowledge. The teacher/professor is essential in this process for three reasons (at least):
    1) They provide the online material (which can be a customized – for their class – version of an online resource, like YouTube videos found on Ted-Ed or Khan Academy, or their own lecture notes with a voice-over – screencasts)
    2) They are the expert who provides the students with a deeper conceptual understanding by answering their questions, expanding on some of the things mentioned in the online material and working out problems with them.
    3) They are a more nuanced evaluator of understanding and learning than what we can do with AI, even if huge amounts of data are gathered on students and their modes of learning. In the end, the professor/teacher will be the one responsible for synthesizing/filtering the information streaming in from students and AI.

    And then, of course, there are experimental labs… Try putting those online. In short, it seems like the online revolution is going to help us clarify what is essential from the old-way of doing things in education, while enhancing our ability to do the things that make universities and classrooms indispensable to learning.

    • John Sidles permalink
      July 19, 2012 8:27 am

      QuantumFrontiers asserts: “And then, of course, there are experimental labs… Try putting those online.”

      With respect, QuantumFrontiers, that is precisely what non-main-sequence labs are doing, by a blend of:

      • robotics,
      • outsourcing,
      • synoptic surveys, and
      • dynamical simulation

      The reasons are many and reinforcing; among them are the obvious benefits of faster pace, lower operating costs, simpler infrastructure. Less obvious benefits, that possibly have even greater longer-term significance of the evolution of academic, is the shared mental model (SMM) that is both the enabling precondition and the accelerating consequence of the potent product:

        \text{robotics}\otimes\text{outsourcing}\otimes\text{synoptic surveys}\otimes\text{simulation}.

      To appreciate this point, QuantumFrontiers, translate your remark back thirty years in time, in disciplines like astronomy and aeronautical engineering, so that it becomes “And then, of course, there are telescopes/wind tunnels … Try putting those online.”

      Hmmm … evidently the computational complexity question: “How hard is quantum simulation?” has social, economic, and strategic implications? That formally the answer is “hard” and effectively the answer is “easy”, for broad classes of quantum and classical dynamical systems, is one of the great findings of modern complexity theory.

      For better or worse, but inexorably in any event, and for young researchers especially, the academic culture of experimental science already is unrecognizably different from the culture of previous academic generations … and the pace of change is accelerating tremendously.

      Which is good (!)   Or maybe good (?) 🙂

      • July 19, 2012 5:15 pm

        Dear John,

        Are you implying that students should no longer have the opportunity to learn physics, or biology by doing experiments at Universities? And why is that good? I also don’t see how you can put telescopes and wind tunnels online. Recall that my quoted statement was:
        “And then, of course, there are experimental labs… Try putting those online.” It was in the context of saying that universities will not disappear as long as there are students who want to learn physics, chemistry, biology, etc., through hands-on experiments. Robotics is irrelevant to student learning, as is outsourcing. I am not sure what synoptic surveys are, but I will give you dynamical simulation as another way of grasping the results of experiments, by modeling the problem at hand. Still, it is one thing to simulate quantum teleportation and another to actually do it in a lab. Reading about how to ride a bike and actually riding one are two different things altogether.

      • John Sidles permalink
        July 19, 2012 5:56 pm

        QuantumFrontiers, my post carefully avoided the word “should” for precisely the reasons your post makes clear!   🙂

        E.g., it’s a fact that many young astronomers — perhaps even the majority — nowadays earn PhDs without ever having scheduled any observation time on any telescope. Rather their research relies upon synoptic sky surveys

        Whether this *should* be the case is a separate issue.

        Similarly, each new generation of Boeing commercial aircraft relies more heavily on computational simulation, and less heavily on wind-tunnel experiments.

        Whether this *should* be the case is, again, a separate issue.

        This trend is evident too in synthetic biology. Whether a young research *should* design tens of thousands of proteins, evaluate these designs in silico, then outsource the expression and assay of the 100 top protein designs to a robotic service, is again a very interesting question.

        That young synthetic biologists *are* doing this is a plain fact.

        For what classes of physical systems are quantum dynamical flows of comparable simulation complexity to aero-dynamical flows or protein-folding flows?

        That is an open fundamental question that has considerable strategic consequence for 21st century research.

      • quantumfrontiers permalink
        July 20, 2012 12:24 am

        Dear John, it seems that your answer refers to graduate and higher studies, whereas I am more focused on the role of universities in educating undergraduates and early graduate students (who are still going to classes and taking labs.) At least, that’s what I thought this whole post was about, not research scientists at universities, who may or may not benefit from outsourcing, robotics, etc.

      • John Sidles permalink
        July 20, 2012 5:05 am

        QuantumFrontiers, these forces are operating ever-more-strongly even at the undergraduate level. For example, recently two third-year undergraduate electrical engineers showed up to do a summer internship in our quantum systems engineering laboratory. We escorted them to the apparatus, told them “your project will be to measure-and-minimize such-and-such a noise level”, and handed them the business end of a BNC cable.

        They leaped back as though that BNC cable were a snake descending from the forest canopy! Surprisingly (to us older folks), their previous electrical engineering classes had never required that they actually measure physical potentials and currents with physical instruments.

        This illuminates the plain reality that four years of undergraduate education is too short a time to learn any modern STEM discipline. About all that can be accomplished in so short a time, is to inculcate a basis of competencies and attitudes that are conducive to life-long learning.

        These considerations illuminate another reason that on-line courses are increasingly popular: people of all ages are consciously awakening to the reality that undergraduate-level STEM certification correlates to professional competence only weakly; they seek a sustained learning environment that broadens and deepens their skills; and they appreciate that a STEM certificate that signifies the holder’s termination of learning is far worse than no certificate at all.

      • John Sidles permalink
        July 21, 2012 9:25 am

        Another towering wave in this weeks tsunami-of-change for STEM enterprises is Slashdot’s story Software Emulates Organism’s Entire Lifespan:

        “The simulation, which runs on a cluster of 128 computers, models the complete life span of the cell at the molecular level, charting the interactions of 28 categories of molecules — including DNA, RNA, proteins and small molecules known as metabolites, which are generated by cell processes.  … The scientists and other experts said the work was a giant step toward developing computerized laboratories that could carry out many thousands of experiments much faster than is possible now.”

        Will cellular dynamical simulations wholly replace wet-bench experiments? Obviously (to most folks) the answer is “no.”

        Will cellular dynamical simulations largely replace wet-bench experiments? And will the remaining experiments largely be robotic? Obviously (to many folks) the answer is “yes.”

        Are quantum dynamical simulations too, destined to largely supplant physics-lab experiments? As Han Solo says in the film Star Wars: “Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?”

        And what do the preceding questions imply for our understanding of complex systems, and for the verification and validation of that understanding, and for the practical applications of that understanding, and for the sharing of our understanding and its fruits?

        For all of these questions, the present diversity of informed opinion is deeply enjoyable and broadly stimulating of progress.

  9. July 18, 2012 1:34 am

    I’m currently going through the UDacity Statistics 101 course to get a sense for exactly these issues. In the abstract, I can’t conceptually see any difference between online videos and a good textbook — the book wins out for me on all aspects, and certainly printing didn’t exterminate universities (quite the opposite).

    The initial competitive advantages that I’m seeing for in-person classes:
    (1) The attention of an _expert_ in the field to answer questions.
    (2) The fact that human lecturers refine presentations over time — and themselves follow a learning curve on where they need to interface with students. I expect that video lectures will be done once and not updated or refined (and for me: 1st time usually shaky).

    • July 19, 2012 10:39 pm

      And I can’t help but wonder what proportion of those couple-hundred completing such courses are other university professors surveying them for job-security investigation purposes.

  10. Scott permalink
    July 18, 2012 8:35 am

    Completely agree with the last few comments in that these online lectures are essentially video textbooks. I imagine that 50 years ago a university could have had their top professors write textbooks and allowed anyone with access to those textbooks to take a test, mail in the answers, and receive a certificate.

    I think one important difference is that 50 years ago college was affordable, and it’s not anymore. When college costs are so high, watching free lectures online and getting some kind of credit for it takes on a whole new appeal, even if it’s not an ideal way to learn for 90% of the students out there.

    • July 19, 2012 11:24 am

      Was college more affordable 50 years ago? In my lifetime it seems as if there has been an explosion in the number of people getting higher educations. My sense is that in the past, it was far more of an elite status, that was significantly more accessible to the wealthier families in our societies.


    • John Sidles permalink
      July 19, 2012 11:51 am

      For sure, college was immensely easier 50+ years ago. For example, to keep abreast of all the world’s literature on quantum measurement theory in the 1930s and 1940s, John von Neumann had to read about 1-2 articles per month. Nowadays that rate is more like 1-2 articles per hour.

      Every STEM discipline is adapting to this transformation in its own way … mathematics is placing increasing emphasis upon naturality, for example.

      In complexity theory perhaps coming years will see a diminishing deployment of oracle-assisted proofs, on the grounds that oracle-dependent proofs act fragment the complexity theory literature, by obfuscating the naturality of complexity.

      Needless to say, these changes are associated to controversy … and the passion of people’s opinions is properly in proportion to the profundity of the problems.

      • July 19, 2012 12:25 pm

        Yes, I imagine that it was a much smaller group of people both going to and teaching at colleges, so far less papers. Certainly the overall population was smaller, but I was really questioning whether the financially costs were higher then or not. My assumption is that the exclusivity was likely maintained by a higher financial burden to entry, but I’m not really sure if that matches reality?


      • John Sidles permalink
        July 19, 2012 1:00 pm

        Paul, the real revolution is rural->urban->global cognitive shifts.

        For example, the Iowa coal-mining county in which I grew up had *no* bookstore within a 40-mile radius … and it still doesn’t. Public drinking fountains came in pairs … and the well-remembered signs had only been removed in recent years. And yet recently, in that same small town, I overheard this conversation in an adjoining cafe booth:

        Junior High-School-age girl “Yesterday I was talking to a boy from Albia? [a nearby small town] And that was *so* weird  `cuz usually I talk to boys from England and Brazil and India!”

        “Oh wow,” I said to myself “now that’s *really* different.”

        Here the point is that prior to WWII, many folks didn’t go to college for the simple reason that nothing in their rural environment encouraged them to imagine that possibility. Those days are gone, all around the world.

      • July 19, 2012 2:33 pm

        Yes, I definitely agree. In fact every time we’re talking here, I keep thinking that it wasn’t that long ago that I would have just considered myself lucky if I could just read about such conversations in a science magazine. Now I’m actually able to participate 🙂

        So does that imply that if there was an education explosion in that last 50 years that its cause might be coming from the increased access to information? That is, more people became aware of there being better opportunities if their education level was higher, so as a result more of them headed off to college. A sort of ‘availability feedback loop’?

        It makes me wonder is the tsunami has already occurred, and now it’s just shifting its base somewhat.


  11. Another crazy dude permalink
    July 18, 2012 8:54 pm

    Don’t judge these emerging initiatives thru the rear-view mirror, the key disruption isn’t about online lectures, it is about the value society puts over this or that university diploma.
    When/where we get good enough certificates that society trust about people capacities in given subjects then we will have the disruption… The grading/accessing weather someone understands some subject and at which level is where the current university oligopoly is going to get shattered the same way record companies have gotten theirs shattered…

  12. July 19, 2012 9:41 pm

    Here is an excellent assessment of plausible middle ground by Benjamin Lima: “Massive Online Learning and the Unbundling of Undergraduate Education”. I saw it linked on Tyler Cowen’s “Marginal Revolution” blog.

  13. Serge permalink
    July 20, 2012 12:23 pm

    The idea that human brains could be successfully replaced by computers sounds more American to me than anything. Fortunately it happens to be completely false, for nothing can replace human relationships.

    This makes me think of that crazy guy, Kenneth Hayworth, who’s planning to commit suicide by having his brain uploaded to a computer: … how sad!

    There’s always one small detail that’s overlooked by the advocates of artificial intelligence: your body can’t be reduced to your brain! It takes a whole body to make a living being…

  14. John Sidles permalink
    July 20, 2012 7:43 pm

    In a story titled “Inside the Coursera Contract”, the Chronicles of Higher Education has posted on-line the complete text of the contract that the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has signed with the Coursera Corporation; the contract is said to be similar to other such contracts with large universities.

    And in a story that presents a comparably thorough analysis of our technology-driven future, The Onion has posted Tech Report: HP Offers ‘That Cloud Thing Everyone Is Talking About’.

    All who smile at the latter, will likely smile at the former.   🙂

  15. Anonymous permalink
    August 1, 2012 1:01 pm

    I think there are serious problems with higher education in the US, specifically with undergraduate education.

    It essentially serves two purposes.

    One purpose is to act as some sort credentialing or ratings service to industry. If you have an undergraduate degree you are considered more qualified for employment with gradations of qualification based on things like grades and what institution you attended.

    The second purpose is to educate people.

    I think that that most people go to college for the former. The typical student goes straight out of H.S., often without a specific passion for any subject, knowing that a degree is needed for employment. After four years they receive their diploma and can move into the workforce often doing something, at best, tangentially related to anything they studied.

    Going to college for four years is a terrible waste of time and money to get a credential. This is the education bubble, so to speak, in that students are paying exorbitant fees to be stamped as qualified for the workplace. In addition, there are many false positives and false negatives with the current system especially for students who cannot afford to pay the high costs of tuition at many universities or have to work while studying.

    This impedance mismatch between what students are hoping to get out of college, specific skills and/or a credential, and what is taught, lead to many of the problems teachers deal with, students who are disinterested, who are inclined to work together, or who plagiarize or cheat on assignments.

    There is also a large pool of people who after working for several years develop a passion for a subject or desire to expand their knowledge for personal interests or career. These people often don’t have access to the education system because of the requirement for a fulltime commitment.

    I think the shakeup that we will see is that fewer people will go directly to college. We may see a shift towards trade schools, apprenticeships, and online courses, along with new credentialling services, with people entering the workplace sooner.

    • August 1, 2012 1:35 pm

      “… who after working for several years develop a passion for a subject or desire to expand their knowledge for personal interests or career. These people often don’t have access …”

      That describes me perfectly. In school I just wanted to get out and build things. Decades later, I just want to spend more time trying to find better answers.


  16. September 6, 2012 12:31 pm

    “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. ” this is the bigest true..

  17. April 14, 2015 5:37 pm

    you seem not to have returned to this topic of edu/ university/ higher ed shifts/ changes in quite awhlie, & big changes are still underfoot. finally decided to blog on it myself after collecting copious links & an ignominious recent event/ milestone. see higher education under heavy fire from all sides, tectonic shifts underway 😮


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